The word of the day is Revolution, and it’s amazing how the same word can mean so many things to so many people. Talk to the Jamaat-e-Islami and you’ll hear loud calls for an Islamic revolution. Ask Altaf Hussain and he’ll opt for something closer to the French variety. The PPP’s revolution never quite made it beyond the ‘roti, kapra aur makaan’ stage, while the PML-N’s version is really not much more than a counter-revolution. By which I mean a revolution for the sole purpose of countering the much — heralded Imran Khan tsunami.
As for Imran Khan, he claims that Pakistan is more ripe for a revolution than either Tunisia or Egypt, saying that “never in our history have we had such levels of corruption and such bad governance.” The comparison with the poster countries of the Arab Spring is inevitable, as the toppling of the Arab ancien regimes was perhaps the single most important event of the past year — leaving many in Pakistan watching the dominoes fall feel a mixture of hope and envy. But spring never came our way, let alone an Indian summer. Instead we continue to languish in the winter of our discontent.
Surely the factors that have historically caused revolutions throughout history also exist in Pakistan? Corruption is now part of our daily lives and culture. Inflation and unemployment are rising consistently, while the gap between the rich and the poor grows ever wider. General unrest due to the lack of electricity, gas and even a necessity as basic as food spills out into the streets with increasing regularity and the underprivileged majority suffers, while the rich manage to wade through their lives unaffected. But somehow, the leaky ship of state sails on, and the voice of the people is only briefly heard in news bulletins in between the breaking news. Somehow, the revolution never comes. Why?
For one thing, we do not have a common enemy to rise up against, which appeared to be the case in the Middle Eastern and African countries. “Unlike Egypt or even Tunisia, there is a lot of fragmentation in Pakistan, both political and religious, and the situation is too polarised,” explains political analyst Hasan Askari. “The possibility of a nationwide uprising that involves all sections of the population — all political, ideological and ethnic groups — is very limited.”
Another reason is that freedom of expression was stifled in those countries to the extent that even a small crack led to the bursting of the dam. In Pakistan, by contrast, the media is relatively free. A multitude of private news channels are filled with the voices of the general public expressing their disenchantment with the government, condemning the politicians, and crying over the sad state of their lives. Thus a safety valve is created, allowing popular discontent to find an outlet. But despite its shrillness and conceits, expecting the media to act as a harbinger of revolution is unrealistic. “The owners [of TV channels] are usually the policymakers, thus the objectives of the free press are stifled to mere profit making which in turn affects the standard of journalism,” claims historian Dr Mehdi Hasan.
The result is that, instead of helping people unite towards a revolutionary cause, the ‘activism’ of electronic journalism has only created uncertainty and fear whilst demoralising and confusing people. “Instead of informing them about the realities, it has gestated speculations, rumours and desires,” says Mehdi.
He also points to a factor other than the lack of cohesion and a common enemy: the fact that Pakistan’s dysfunctional political system, believe it or not, has a built-in safety valve: democracy.
“There were no real political parties in either Egypt or Tunisia, whereas in Pakistan, political parties, both before and after Partition, have been working towards democratic and constitutional change,” he says.
But by and large, democracy has thus far failed to deliver the goods, and while we may have no Qaddafi or Mubarak serving as focal points for our collective rage, the entrenched political class and mafias do certainly serve as our personal targets.
To Raza Rumi, the editor of The Friday Times, the failure of democracy is not simply due to the failings of the civilians. Laying blame at the doorstep of the military establishment, he argues that “the civilian government is still not fully in charge; factors like foreign and security policy doled out by unelected foreign bodies with vested interest control the workings of the country.” On some level, it seems that we understand these factors and thus never come out on the streets en masse.
Author and journalist Masud Mufti argues that this is because “the army hijacks the situation in favour of perpetuating its own rule, direct or indirect.” According to him, the army typically manipulates the agitation of the common man for its own advantage, which is why the promised change never comes about. Even a successful revolution, Mufti argues, would only lead to a situation of complete anarchy, resulting in civil war. “Ultimately, our fate would be in the hands of yet another martial law, rather than a revolution moving us towards a truly democratic beginning.”
Whatever the reasons, and whoever we choose to blame, the fact remains that thus far we have only seen false dawns, and that the winds of change that have blown across our political landscape have petered out too soon.
Mufti points to the 1968-69 revolts in Pakistan as an example of an unfulfilled revolution. He actively participated in the riots in Lyallpur and recalls how the movement had electrified society. Recounting the burning hope in the masses, who had all reached their pinnacle of frustration due to the regime of Ayub Khan, he says Yahya Khan was welcomed with open arms as Pakistan was desperate for a change.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s subsequent electoral victory brought along with it another wave of exuberance, but hope soon started fading as even Bhutto and his Peoples Party did little to help those it promised to serve. “Bhutto was a modern man by education but by temperament he was a feudal,” says Mufti.
In an article published in Newsweek, former foreign minister, Yaqub Khan says, “Feudalism is inimical to democracy. Let’s recall the reign of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The man said he was a champion of democracy‚ but he acted autocratically and this showed he was a true feudal. You must understand that feudalism is not merely the fact that someone has large landholdings; it is a state of mind.”
Skip a few decades, and the 2007 lawyers’ movement that helped in the restoration of Iftikhar Chaudhry, followed by the ousting of former president Pervez Musharraf, was seen as a big win for democracy. The same glimmer of hope that shone in the eyes of the people in 1968 could be seen once again. But what ensued afterwards? Asif Zardari became president and we saw one of the most ineffectual governments in all of Pakistan’s history muddling from crisis to crisis. Meanwhile the lawyers’ movement itself degenerated into farce, with many of its leading lights and foot soldiers displaying the same autocratic behaviour they had fought against when Musharraf was in power.
It’s no surprise then that many are sceptical about the hopes people have pinned to the new rising political ‘hero’ of Pakistan, Imran Khan. The question is whether this predicted tsunami will wash the nation clean of corruption and other diseases or whether we will rebound into yet another cycle of disappointment and despair.
According to Dr Mehdi, “All the successful movements in Pakistan have been so due to the sacrifices of the people, but the following governments are ineffective in bringing about any productive change afterwards.”
Indeed, despite the efforts for real change and freedom, and the heroic events of the past months, so far none of the revolutions in North Africa have secured a certain victory. In Egypt and Tunisia, where dictators were ousted, the ruling classes are making desperate attempts to hang on to their wealth and power. In Pakistan, Mufti feels that even though a revolution in Pakistan is inevitable, right now there is no direction in the country. “Revolution is just being used as a slogan rather than a programme,” he says. Even though the need and desire for change has reached insurmountable heights, the notion of a revolution is merely being glorified rather than used as a tool for bringing about actual change.
So perhaps it is now time that we stopped dreaming about revolution and instead focused on evolution. Until and unless we take it upon ourselves to bring about a change, nothing can be achieved as our history teaches us not to count on heroes who hold out false hopes. Unless the people of the country unite against sectarianism, fundamentalism, corruption and all the other maladies plaguing us, the future of Pakistan will always seem bleak. Unless we build a strong foundation, a solid structure cannot be built atop. And if we can succeed in doing so, without leaning on demagogues, bayonets and utopian visions, then we will have achieved the greatest revolution of all.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 15th, 2012.